Skip to main content

Behind a chain-link fence, the former Eaton's at the Don Mills Shopping Centre lies broken in a million twisted, dusty pieces. Soon, the rest of the mall will follow and the long process of rebuilding the bull's eye of this half-century-old community will begin. Like the original 1954 John Parkin design, the new mall will be open to the elements; unlike the original, it will include thoroughfares with parking, sidewalks with benches, and a pond with skating in winter.

About a kilometre away in a condo tower, retired architect Henry Fliess produces a letter he wrote to developer Cadillac Fairview asking if it would reconsider its design of the new mall. In his opinion, the increasingly grey population won't be too keen about fighting over parking near their favourite shops, or about the lack of sheltered spaces in which to congregate over coffee, something they enjoyed in the food court.

Mr. Fliess should know. While he may not have designed this mall, he did design Sherway Gardens (phases one and two) with fellow architect James Murray, as well as the Village Square in Baltimore's Cross Keys Village for influential American developer James A. Rouse. He also created about 15 designs for home in Don Mills, and as if to illustrate this, he fanned out on his teak dining table photographs of some strikingly modern beauties. In total, he estimates 300 to 400 were built, as well as a handful of custom one-offs near the Donalda Club.

The title of his letter is "Don Mills is losing its heart and gaining a transplant." While he's got a point, it helps to remember that Don Mills has four other hearts: its neighbourhood quadrants. Save for the occasional monster home oozing to the edge of its lot lines, most residents -- whether they know of Henry Fliess or Don Mills mastermind Macklin Hancock or not -- sense that they live somewhere special and opt for sensitive renovations or small additions.

That's true of Mr. Fliess's former neighbours on Jocelyn Crescent, the first street constructed in Don Mills in 1953. An architect and an artist, they chose the house in 1959 -- one of several Fliess designs on the block -- because it spoke to their artistic sensibilities, then as now. Other than a relocated wall and a small addition enlarging the living and dining areas, Mr. Fliess's design is intact. The renovations, they say, were easy because of the airy post-and-beam ceilings and wide, split-level floor plan.

Next door, where Mr. Fliess lived, the interiors remain almost identical to his 1954 photographs, with rich wood panelling over the plaster and an unusual horizontal-picket staircase. "That wouldn't be allowed today," the architect says of the staircase, his bright eyes flashing from behind bifocals.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1921, Mr. Fliess travelled to the town of Deal in Britain at the age of 15 to attend secondary school. "I could see what was happening in Germany more than some other people," he recalls, a German accent still shaping his words. "As a teenager, I think you sense it more."

After graduation, he apprenticed with an architectural firm on the advice of his school principal.

When the war broke out, he was rounded up as a "friendly" prisoner and brought to a camp on the Isle of Man. He was later transported to Newfoundland, then Trois-Rivières, Que., where the townspeople gawked at the prisoners, and finally to a New Brunswick camp, where he "quite enjoyed" planting and chopping down trees.

After the war, he decided to remain in Canada. He moved to Toronto to continue his studies under the University of Toronto's legendary professor, Eric Arthur. "He's the person that influenced my life," says Mr. Fliess, who became a Canadian citizen in 1945 and graduated in 1946.

Looking for work, he spotted a University of British Columbia advertisement calling for teachers. He went to Prof. Arthur for a letter of recommendation but was offered a job teaching architectural design instead. His students included Irving Grossman, Jerome Markson and Raymond Moriyama, "but I don't know if teaching them made any difference because they had the ability right from the start," he says. In 1953, he became heavily involved with Don Mills and resigned.

In addition to single-family houses in Don Mills, Mr. Fliess designed the row house complex South Hills Village with Mr. Murray. "These days it probably wouldn't be considered earth-shaking [but]at the time, row housing was considered to be slums. So one of the things we did is have a place for the daily garbage so it wouldn't be sitting out on the street."

Thoughtfulness such as that exterior garbage bunk, the mix of private and public gardens, and split-level floor plans won the duo a Massey Medal in the late 1950s, which Mr. Fliess admits was "a great surprise."

"We just did the best we could do and it seemed to us to be a pretty normal project," he says with modesty, "but I guess at that time it really was the best kind of row housing that was built."

This led to several other row house/townhouse projects, as well as urban planning. In the late 1960s, when the Donalda Club was thinking of portioning off some land, Mr. Fliess convinced them to sell to members. They agreed and hired him to plan the subdivision, and his own house was the first built on Barnwood Court in 1970 (a street he named but admits was his least favourite of the three he suggested to the club). Mr. Fliess also designed the homes on either side of his own.

"I really loved living there. I used to go walk the golf course before breakfast," he remembers.

Retired for 13 years and today using a walker to get around, the architect still manages to get out and survey the massive changes occurring in the "new town" of Don Mills, which he helped create. While he has nothing but praise for those who've adapted his house designs for their own use, he's not so sure about the Don Mills centre or the development business in general. "I think now it's becoming a matter of profit and crowding it in," he says.

Fortunately, the true heart of Don Mills can be found in its neighbourhoods, the people who live in them, and the ideals still cherished by men like Henry Fliess.

In 1995, Mr. Fliess was awarded the Ontario Association of Architects' Order of da Vinci for his lifetime of leadership in the architectural community.

Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Wednesdays during Toronto at Noon and Sunday mornings. Send inquiries to .

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe